It's not likely to feature in the mainstream travel brochures anytime soon. Has the remote former Soviet state of Kyrgyzstan really got enough attractions to entertain an intrepid tourist?
A gentle bite on the back of the neck from a middle-aged man was definitely a new experience for me. Was this a local custom, I earnestly enquired through my interpreter (my girlfriend, Sara). No, replied one of the three Muslim girls who had invited us to celebrate Nooruz, the Muslim Spring Festival, with them: the man was simply drunk.
We were in Aravan, in Kyrgyzstan but close to the border with Uzbekistan, being whisked like royalty around the town, enjoying dancing and music, enduring speeches from and shaking hands with local politicians, while being fed constantly with bowls of local delicacies.
Kyrgyzstan has comparatively little tourist infrastructure, and can probably better be classified as an experience rather than as an outright holiday destination. Its visitors are likely to be adventurous and curious, and this former Soviet state should be avoided by hedonistic pleasure-seekers or fans of comfort. On the other hand, a fortnight here will undoubtedly bring you face-to-face with experiences you've never had before. A beautiful, mountainous land with people who are both friendly and respectful despite aching poverty, Kyrgyzstan will leave a profound impression on you long after you're home.
The capital city
By plane, you'll arrive in the capital, Bishkek. It's a name so obscure that it has probably not featured in even the most challenging of pub-quiz tie-breakers. Despite being imposingly framed by spectacular mountains, first impressions may be of a rather dilapidated city dotted with Communist-era architecture. There is a surplus of interesting statues, which decorate the local park, and the Kyrgyz State Museum on Ala-Too Square is a must-visit simply because of its different take on history: where else can you see art depicting the skeletal figure of 'Uncle Sam' astride a Persching missile? The Cold War is still thawing here. But even if museum exhibits are not your bag, the mountain views from the top-floor windows are worth the modest admission money.
Another curious side trip is the massive TsUM department store (155 Chui), where souvenirs include Russian military medals and flags. There are some bargains, though traders are wising-up to the earning opportunities that tourists provide. But the stalls will allow you a look at the stylised emblems of the lost Soviet empire.
Check in at the Silk Road Lodge (229 Abdumomonova): probably Bishkek's best value for something acceptable (double,7200 som). It's reasonably centrally located, and has good facilities - even a pool.
Dine at the plush-ish Four Seasons (116 Tynystanov; +996 31262 15 48), where you have the option of good European cuisine (main course, 300 som). Take it while you can. Once you get out of town, your options narrow.
Karakol and Lake Issy Kul
A scenic day's drive from the capital will take you to Karakol, via Lake Issy Kul. Like travel in most of the country, taxi or shared taxi is the way to go. CBT (see below) can advise and organise, or negotiate for yourself. Self-drive is unknown and unwise, due to poor roads and over-attentive policemen.
Apparently the lake is where the Soviet Union used to test its submarines, though like many things here, the border between fact and fiction is wide and blurred. The lake itself is beautiful, and by Kyrgyz standards, its north coast - with beaches and austere spa hotels - is comparatively well-developed for tourists.
Karakol itself is famous for its boisterous Sunday morning animal market. Make sure you visit it, watch men 'test-drive' horses, make your own evaluation of cattle and one-eared donkeys, and join the locals in downing a couple of shots of breakfast vodka at 7am.
You can stay in a hotel here, of course, but perhaps now is the chance to support the CBT (Community- Based Tourism; www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg) and overnight it in a homestay. It's a chance to experience Kyrgyz hospitality, home-cooked food - and to save some money: bed and breakfast can start from as little as 300 som. Teskey Guesthouse (44 Asanalieva) is a good example, with excellent food and hosts.
CBT also organise trekking, horse-riding and other outdoor activities across the country, and the Karakol office at 123 Abdrakhmanov will be happy to assist.
A detour to the red rocks of Jeti-Oguz is an option from here, but you may be more tempted to call on Tenti, the Eagle Man of Jele Debe, five minutes from Karakol. Tenti's winged companion (see photo) is a national hunting champion, capable of killing wolves. With a wingspan of 1.3 metres, you'd better believe it.
Osh and Aravan
A visit to the second city of Osh is best achieved by internal flight from Bishkek. A road journey will be time-consuming. Home to a busy bazaar, this town of 250,000 is also host to a large Uzbek population, which gives it a different character to Bishkek.
A visit to the colourful bazaar will reward you with friendly stallholders, proud of their spices, wooden cots and felt hats, and happy to comply with photo requests.
Just south of the city centre, the TES Guesthouse (5 Say-Boyu) is small and popular, so book ahead. Doubles: around 1400 som.
And so to Aravan, which provided us with our unforgettable Nooruz experience. The Spring Festival takes place on 21 March, so those fortunate enough to be here then should take advantage and visit. Aravan is best reached as a day trip from Osh, being only 25km away. By late afternoon, the festival will be over: tables will be cleared away from the main square, as if it had never happened. But before then, enjoy the food, watch - and join in - the open-air dancing, listen to the MPs' speeches, and gawp at the boys clambering over the Soviet tank, a relic from earlier days, bizarrely abandoned in the town centre.
And most of all, soak up the hospitality.
Of course, hospitality here has its downside, in that food offered should not be refused. And it is constantly being offered! The cuisine will not delight everyone, being heavy, meaty and sometimes greasy.
And a word of warning: in Osh and Aravan, you'll be offered plov, a heavy-but-palatable rice and mutton concoction, but elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, they honour their guests with the ultimate delicacy: a sheep's eyeball - it might be wise not to accept too many invitations while you're here.
Eat a sheep's eyeball, or insult your hosts with a refusal? Now there's a dilemma you don't face every day. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan.
Many readers will have known little about this country before reading this guide, and there's more to Kyrgyzstan than can be covered in a thousand words. Some things to remember:
You will need a visa to visit.
Flights to Bishkek are available from London through Bmi International, but could be cheaper with Turkish Airlines or Aeroflot. You can also fly in from Tashkent, Almaty or Tehran.
Not much English is spoken. Russian can act as a default language for Kyrgyz or Uzbek.
CBT (see above) are a good source of info pre-visit, and can arrange most things while you're there.